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Hot Docs Programmers Resign En Masse (Includes Update)

Ten programmers leave on eve of line-up announcement

12 mins read

Ten members of Hot Docs programming team have resigned. Among them are veteran international programmers Myrocia Watamaniuk and Angie Driscoll, who had been with the festival for over 20 years. Also resigning are international programmers Samah Ali, Vivian Belik, Jesse Cumming, Gabor Pertic, Margaret Pereira, Kaitlynn Tomaselli, and Canadian programmers Mariam Zaidi and Yiqian Zhang. The programmers noted their resignations on social media, while Screen confirmed the departures. [Update: Mar. 26 – The programmers have sent a joint statement.]

A screenshot of a Facebook post by former Hot Docs programmer Myrocia Watamaniuk

Cumming confirmed his resignation to POV last week via email and authenticated reports that his programme, Markers, had been cancelled in January. Markers was a programme of experimental documentaries and featured artistic docs from Canada and around the word that POV has praised, including This House, Calls from Moscow, Feet in Water, Head on Fire, and the Palestinian doc We No Longer Prefer Mountains.

Additional requests to Hot Docs and to several programmers, including some noted above, did not receive a response, but today’s news comes in a strange flurry of reports about brewing conflict within Hot Docs’ programming department.

An anonymous email sent to POV. An invitation to discuss the matter via phone yielded no response. (‘Cone of silence’ is a Get Smart reference.)

In interviews with Hot Docs’ former artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy and president Marie Nelson on February 29 and March 4, respectively, the festival leaders shared with POV that the 2024 line-up would shrink by 15% to 20%. Currimbhoy noted the figure would be closer to the latter. Both parties said that the change was largely a matter of raising the bar.

Hot Docs’ programming will still include both the competitive Canadian Spectrum and International Spectrum, while a new competitive strand Land | Sea| Sky spotlights our relationship with nature. Currimbhoy said that the Deep Dive programme, which focused on episodic documentary, won’t be returning. Last year, Philippe Falardeau’s Deep Dive selection Lac Mégantic: This Is Not an Accident won Hot Docs’ overall audience award.

The artistic director said that the line-up would include an expanded focus on films from the global south and three new thematic streams, including Emergence, a strand about docs that examine the relationship between technology and consciousness, and The Art of Resistance. Toronto ex-pat Currimbhoy emphasized a curatorial approach to these selections, finding artistic approaches and films that expand the documentary form. However, the resignations and cancellation of the experimental Markers programme tell a different story.

Nelson, meanwhile, articulated that Canadian content would still have its place in the festival. “People want to be part of Hot Docs because, number one, they’re going to see strong representation in terms of Canadian filmmaking. That will always be a core strength of Hot Docs as a festival,” said Nelson on March 4.

Though Nelson’s statement is reassuring, it’s notable that Hot Docs would be required to retain its Canadian content proportionally in the event of a downscale in order to retain its funding. Despite this,  POV knows of at least one high-profile Canadian documentary that didn’t make the cut despite fitting into one of the festival’s new strands.

Moreover, the third new strand is Pop/Life, a section devoted entirely to music documentaries, arguably the most commercial corner of non-fiction cinema. The emphasis on music docs has been noted by programmers who feel they are being asked to put bums in seats.

A source close to the festival added that these changes to the direction of the programming inspired the resignations. Multiple requests to speak with veteran programmer Heather Haynes for an article were denied. Haynes was reportedly “on leave” for weeks. A query sent to Haynes’ email returned a out of office response. A follow-up sent to Hot Docs programming manager Kristin Boivin, to whom Haynes’ auto-reply directed senders for assistance, yielded no response when asking directly about Haynes’ status with the festival. Haynes was announced as Director of Festival Programming in November 2023 after serving on the festival’s programming team for 17 years.

Members of the programming team are no longer listed on the festival’s staff page, although Haynes and Currimbhoy still were as of press time, and none of the festival’s recent programming announcements has included a quote from a member of the programming team, as is traditionally the case. (Meanwhile, industry notices have.) [Update: 7:20pm – As per Deadline, Currimbhoy has left the festival and Haynes will lead the programming for this year’s festival.]

The reports come on the heels of an article published in The Globe & Mail on March 8 in which Nelson expressed urgent need for Hot Docs to receive financial support and a March 11 interview with CBC that said this year’s festival could be Hot Docs’ last. Nelson didn’t articulate such a precarious financial situation during her interview with POV on March 4, but she did acknowledge that the organization was having some tough conversations and working with partners in the community to stay resilient. Nelson, who stepped into the role last year, also said that the organization was responsive to change when asked directly about the relationship between new leaders and long-time staff. Requests for follow-ups sent to Hot Docs this week did not receive a response.

According to a source outside the festival, Nelson’s campaign for financial aid delayed the mass resignation of the programming team, who reportedly filed all their programming notes to ensure that the film selections were secure. POV can confirm that many filmmakers and independent publicists have been in touch regarding film selections and are moving forward for the festival as planned. However, the absence of programmers means that the festival will run short of hands to manage post-screening Q&As with the invited filmmakers. Hot Docs is rumoured to be approaching external figures to moderate in place of the programmers.

Hot Docs is scheduled to announce its full line-up on Tuesday, March 26.


Update (7:25pm): POV contacted a former Hot Docs board member who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. They confirmed that they vacated their seat from the board, citing a lack of confidence in the governance, work culture, and practices. They also noted internal disagreements about the festival’s public statements regarding Israel and Palestine, and that said statement was felt to be uncomfortably pro-Israel at the expense of the wider context and conversation. [Update, Mar. 28, 8:00 pm:  In an email exchange between POV and the former board member on Mar. 26, he/she said that his/her board term wasn’t up, believing the term to be three years, and that he/she was told it was up after two. A representative from the Hot Docs board disputes this claim and said in a phone call and follow-up email that the former board member’s term had completed prior to festival releasing its statement about Israel/Palestine.]

“I’m not going to sit on a board where I feel that I’m not comfortable with the decisions that are being made,” they said.

The source confirmed that Hot Docs’ HR department received complaints about Currimbhoy’s behaviour and that he was undermining programmers’ decisions. “The reality is that Hussain also left Sheffield and Sundance, and there were comparable contexts for those departures,” said the source.

Following that call, POV learned that Currimbhoy had left Hot Docs, as reported by Deadline. Haynes will lead the programming department for this year’s festival, as per a statement by Hot Docs to Deadline.

Hot Docs sent the following response to POV: “Hot Docs has announced that Hussain Currimbhoy stepped down from his role as Artistic Director on March 20th due to personal reasons. Hussain was fundamental in programming this year’s Festival. Festival Director Heather Haynes will lead the programming department in preparations for this year’s Festival, April 25-May 5. Regrettably, some members of the programming team have decided not to participate in this year’s Festival. We thank them for their contributions. We look forward to celebrating this year’s films with our audiences and bringing them together with filmmakers to share their important stories.”

However, there remain concerns about the festival’s future without a serious effort to examine the practices and work culture. “You have a programmer with a history in relation to other festivals. You have co-chairs who clearly have been co-chairs for a very long time, and you have programmers, [nearly] all women programmers, some of whom have 20 years’ of experience at the festival, who’ve resigned the day before the programming announcement,” said the former board member.

UPDATE (Mar. 26, 12:40 pm): The 10 programmers have released a joint statement explaining their resignation.


Correction (Mar. 26, 2:00pm): This article has been updated to clarify Haynes’ auto-reply as an “out of office” response. POV previously referred to it as a “vacation response” and regrets the error.

Correction (Mar. 26, 4:50pm): This article has been updated to clarify that the former Hot Docs board member “vacated their seat.” POV previously referred to it as a “resignation” and regrets the error.

Correction (Mar. 28, 8:00pm): This article has been updated to note the dispute regarding the timing/nature of the board member’s departure.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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